Having captured gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Team Canada is expected to do the same in Sochi. No team has more depth or top-level talent than the Canadians, but repeating as Olympic champion is far from a foregone conclusion due to a number of deficiencies Canada must compensate for.
On the surface, Canada seems like the perfect team. Every player on the squad has superstar capabilities, and the roster is strong from top to bottom. But the Canadians lost a game to Team USA in 2010 and narrowly beat the Americans in overtime in the gold-medal game, so they have shown plenty of vulnerability in the past.
Canada hasn't medaled outside North America since the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, which means the Canadians have something to prove in Sochi. If they are going to win gold outside North America for the first time since the 1952 Oslo Games, here are the three biggest obstacles they must overcome.
The one thing that very nearly prevented Canada from capturing gold in 2010 was shaky goaltending. Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo was the go-to guy between the pipes, and the end result was great, as he and his teammates topped the podium.
But there were plenty of nervous moments throughout the tournament. Luongo looked quite uncomfortable at times, but that was covered up by the fact that the crop of defensemen and forwards in front of him was so strong.
Canada will once again have a great group of skaters in Sochi, but it may not be able to get away with poor goaltending. Although head coach Mike Babcock has not revealed his intentions, it looks as though Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price has a slight edge over Luongo in terms of being the starter. Interestingly, the Habs and Canucks face each other on Feb. 6, according to Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette:
It's possible Babcock has already made up his mind, but perhaps the outcome of that game will influence him. Luongo has given up at least three goals in each of his past four games, while Price has allowed two or fewer in each of his past four starts. Price gave up four or more in his five previous appearances, though, which means both netminders enter Sochi riding a wave of up-and-down play. If they aren't on top of their respective games come Olympic time, Canada could be in big trouble.
Steven Stamkos' Health
Team Canada has so much forward talent and depth that most would consider losing one forward a minor bump in the road, with the exception of Sidney Crosby. With that said, Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos could be the biggest X-factor for the Canadians in Sochi. Stamkos is currently on the roster and slated to make the trip to Russia, but his participation is far from a sure thing due to the fact that he is still trying to come back from a leg injury.
Stamkos hasn't played since Nov. 11, but he hopes to play on Feb. 8 in order to get some game action in prior to the Olympics, per Lightning beat reporter Missy Zielinski:
Although Stamkos hasn't said that he must play in an NHL game before competing for Canada in Sochi, it is certainly his preference, according to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com:
The objective is to play a game (in the NHL), that would be something I would really love to do. But if that's not the case, there's going to be another discussion about whether or not I'm still going to be on that team if I can't play a game. We've had brief discussions about that, it's more or less been, 'We'll cross that bridge when (if) we need to.'
Canada may be able to win it all without Stamkos, but it would make things far more difficult. Along with Washington Capitals and Team Russia winger Alex Ovechkin, Stamkos may be the NHL's best pure goal scorer. He has one of the most devastating shots in the world, and it would be even more dangerous with more space on the Olympic-sized ice. Stamkos' status could impact Canada's medal chances more than most seem to realize ahead of the 2014 Olympics.
Defining Roles Up Front
While talent is a huge factor when it comes to winning Olympic gold, it certainly isn't the only thing worth taking under consideration. Canada's crop of forwards is impressive, to say the least, but it remains to be seen how Babcock will utilize them. He intends to put NHL teammates together, which is likely a smart decision, but those combinations figure to change frequently, according to Sportsnet Hockey Central:
It is often said that a team can't have too many good centers, but that may not be true over the course of a short tournament. Among Canada's 14 forwards, eight of them are primarily pivots. Most of them have experience playing on the wings, but it isn't necessarily an easy transition that can be made at the drop of a hat after playing half the NHL season down the middle.
Canada clearly took a different approach than the United States. Team USA has just five pure centers and has seemingly defined a role for every forward. Canada has the ability to mix and match, which could ultimately be a strength, but it could just as easily create confusion and a lack of chemistry, which might doom the Canadians in the end.
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